1 Kings 18:24
And call you on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the LORD: and the God that answers by fire, let him be God…
The utterance of these words marked a great occasion. No criticism of details can annul the essential greatness of the hour when men seek, in the measure of their light, to know and acknowledge God. It is a fateful hour for the seekers themselves, and has, besides, important bearings upon the spiritual progress of the race. The form of the quest in one generation may appear crude to the critics of a later period, but they are poor readers of history who lay very much stress on form. The true student of life will always hasten to discover the soul that lives beneath the form, and to learn the permanent and essential significance of the event. A crude and rudimentary form may enshrine a sublime spirit, while a developed form may possibly enclose no spirit to speak of. It is easy to look down from the embellished eminence of modern knowledge upon the setting up of a fire test on Mount Carmel, for the discernment of the true God. We have advanced beyond the form of this appeal, and have been taught a more excellent way. But a careful study of the inward spirit and meaning of this ancient test may possibly take some of the conceit out of us, and lead us to pray for a double portion of the spirit of the old prophet, in order that we may more worthily animate our superior forms with prophetic power. Beneath the contests with the priests of Baal lay the perennial problem of the human heart. How can God be known? By what means can His presence be recognised in the world? In this great scroll of creation, in which a steady procession of laws and forces are registering their achievements, how shall we recognise the special and personal entry of the Divine Hand? the direct and holy signature of God? The test on Mount Carmel was not arbitrary. The appeal to fire went to the very centre and mystery of material forces. It was the subtlest point to which the material test could be carried This element of fire was a profound mystery which seemed to pass inwards and impinge upon the very soul of existence. The test recognised that God held His court in the inner recesses of being and in the temple of uncomprehended mystery. The form was material, though very subtly so, but the underlying conception was spiritual. In the New Testament the form itself is spiritualised, and the true meaning of the ideal of Carmel is conveyed in the words, "He shall baptize you in the Holy Ghost and in fire."
I. THE CHALLENGE OF THE TEXT REMINDS US OF THE SUBTLENESS OF GOD'S SELF-MANIFESTATION. The manifestation of the true God must be sought, not in gross, but in the subtlest forms. He is the God that answers by fire. Sift the world of perception and knowledge down to its most ethereal elements, pass through the crude outer crust of things into the inward heart of life, penetrate beneath the surface of existence until you reach its centre of fire, and you will stand where God reveals Himself to the spirits that worship Him. The material perceptions which bulk and obtrude upon our life are but the "outskirts of His ways." The pure manifestation of His presence is in the ethereal and inward energy of fire. The spirit that informed this grand ordeal on Carmel is as evident as it was just. It is an infirmity of the flesh to desire the manifestation of God in crude and obtrusive forms. The spirit and disposition of unbelieving scepticism is specially prone to this egregious infirmity. With the confidence born of fatuous miscomprehension, the sceptic issues the challenge — "If there is a God, why does He not show Himself?" This infirmity finds its unwisest expression in the seats of scepticism, but Christian people also need to be on their guard against it. The pure idea of the self-revealing God is attained only by the inward purification of the soul from the bias of sense. I do not seek to interdict the prayer of faith for material things, or for a moment question the personal intervention of the redeeming God in the material domain. I hold, on the contrary, that such unmistakable intervention is not only recorded in the pages of the sacred Word, but also in the experience of God's saints in all generations. But such intervention is not primary, but secondary; the corollary of the kingdom of love. Let us approach God worthily. He is too great to be for ever crudely advertising His presence on the common hoardings of sense.
II. WE ARE LED BY AN OBVIOUS STEP TO RECOGNISE THE NATURALNESS OF GOD'S SELF-MANIFESTATION. His kingdom is not the contradiction of nature, but the glorification of it. His secret glories pour themselves through the channels of being, and diffuse themselves through all the avenues of natural law. In the main He fulfils His glory through the common orbits and courses of created things, charging every shining point of creation with gleams of His spiritual glory. The stars fight for Him without leaving, or halting in, their courses. The heavens declare His glory, and the firmament showeth His handiwork. His lightnings fly very swiftly. His way is in the sea, and His path in the deep waters. He crams the earth with His invisible fires, and kindles in every bush the flame of His presence. In creation and in the history of man He works out His holy purpose by ordered and consistent laws, by gloriously natural processes. Through the ages one increasing purpose runs. The natural and the spiritual coalesced on Mount Carmel into wedded unity, so that you cannot say where the one ends and the other begins. Miracles are simply natural law written in capital letters. They serve to introduce new epochs, just as capitals are used to announce a new chapter. Let us look reverently for God in the beaten paths of universal law and life, for it is there He will reveal Himself. He will not go back upon the glorious order which He Himself has created and ordained. Learn the essence of the flame that leaps along the lightning's track and the essence of the victorious power which is impelling the human race onward and upward; for they am both one. They are the potency of the God that answers by fire.
III. Our thought naturally expands further into THE UNLIMITED FREEDOM OF GOD'S SELF-MANIFESTATION. Who will clip the wings of flame, or make curbs for the secret energies of fire? Who will pluck the ambushed lightnings out of their secret lairs, imprison them one and all behind impassable barriers, and say to the incarcerated legions, "Thus far shall ye go, and no farther"? A planet is fixed in its appointed orbit, and the wandering star is drawn back from its wanderings by invisible chains; but fire has the freedom of the universe, and pours its mysterious force from the centre to the circumference of all created existence. The God that answers by fire is a God whose self-manifesting energy is unlimited and free. Human history illustrates and demonstrates the absolute freedom of God's revelation of Himself to men. In history, as Emerson has well shown, every man is introduced into a universal atmosphere. Hero we touch and perceive, and appropriate that which is common to all humankind. Every man is elected a freeman in the imperial city of history. It knows no class distinctions, no party privileges. What, then, do we find when we come to search in history for the revelation of God to men? What limitations do we discover in the descent of the Divine fire into the lives of men? Has God limited His goings to artificial grooves, and to barriered avenues? Nay, His fires have been kindled on every headland. Has Spirit has whispered its naming secret of truth and love and hope to every nation under the sun. We can see His goings in the history of all nations, and trace the progress of His redeeming work in all generations. He has kindled His holy fires in the hearts of men as far as He has sent His sunlight to bless the face of the earth. Once, indeed, an attempt was made, through lack of knowledge, to make a single nation the one channel of Divine grace, but the barriers were thrown down with a crash which still vibrates in the words, "Is God the God of the Jews only? Nay, but of the Gentiles also." We refer with sorrow, not untinged with indignation, to those who in the present day would audaciously circumscribe the communication of the grace of God, and limit the freedom of the heavenly fire.
(J. Thomas, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And call ye on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the LORD: and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God. And all the people answered and said, It is well spoken.